Pennsylvania man arrested for alleged threats to kill Rep. Cantor

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A08

A Philadelphia man was charged Monday with threatening to kill Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his family in the first such arrest since an outbreak of harassment and vandalism began against members of Congress more than a week ago.

Norman Leboon, 33, posted a YouTube video last week in which he threatened to shoot Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, and his family.

An affidavit released Monday did not say why Leboon allegedly wanted to harm Cantor, the only Jewish Republican member of Congress, but in the video, he calls Cantor "pure evil."

"Remember Eric . . . our judgment time, the final Yom Kippur has been given," he says in the profanity-laced video. "You are a liar, you're a pig . . . you're an abomination. You receive my bullets in your office, remember they will be placed in your heads. You and your children are Lucifer's abominations."

The battle over health care has led to a spate of threats against members of Congress, mostly Democrats. At least 10 House Democrats reported death threats, or incidents of harassment or vandalism at their district offices last week, including thrown bricks, a cut gas line and threatening letters and calls.

Cantor engaged in a war of words with Democratic leaders last week, accusing Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) of "fanning the flames" and politicizing the subject of threats.

Democrats suggested Cantor was seeking to exploit the issue by staging a news conference to say his Richmond campaign office had been fired at last Tuesday. Police later determined that a stray bullet hit his office.

On Monday, both Democrats condemned the newly revealed threats to Cantor.

"There is absolutely no room in America for threats, intimidation or violence, and it is incumbent upon all of us to speak out against both violent acts and incendiary rhetoric," Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell said.

The FBI received a copy of the video Friday, and investigators used their databases and a recent arrest photo to determine that the man in the video was Leboon, who was arrested Saturday at his home. He previously was arrested, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, on charges of terrorist threats, assault and recklessly endangering another person.

"The Department of Justice takes threats against government officials seriously, especially threats to kill or injure others," U.S. Attorney Michael L. Levy said. "Whether the reason for the threat is personal or political, threats are not protected by the First Amendment and are crimes."

In the past, juries have been reluctant to convict those who made their threats online. But First Amendment experts on Monday said Leboon's case appears to be different from others that have tested the limits of political speech.

Martin H. Redish, a First Amendment scholar and professor at Northwestern University law school, said Leboon's words are ambiguous in the rambling video, until he mentions the word bullets, which Redish said appears to be a clear threat that could not be considered free speech. Still, he said, Leboon could try to make a First Amendment defense. "He could try to argue that we shouldn't take his words literally," Redish said.

Bill White, the self-proclaimed commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, a neo-Nazi group, was convicted in December on counts of threatening three people and trying to intimidate litigants in a housing discrimination lawsuit, even though he argued that the First Amendment allowed him to make his remarks.

Internet radio host Hal Turner, charged with threatening to kill three Chicago federal appeals court judges, has so far had two mistrials, the second because the jury deadlocked. Turner argued that he didn't make a threat, just rendered an opinion, when he wrote on his blog that the judges "deserved to die" for upholding a local ban on handguns.

Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA who specializes in free speech, said the mode of Leboon's alleged threat -- the Internet -- is unlikely to make a difference in his case. "The law looks to message and not to medium," he said. "It's hard to see what he said as anything but a death threat."

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said the congressman was notified over the weekend by authorities that a credible threat was made against his life and that an arrest had been made.

"At this time, the congressman will have no further comment on this threat or the investigation, and asks that inquiries be directed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Dayspring said. "The congressman is deeply grateful for, and would like to dearly thank all local and federal law enforcement involved."

Leboon gave $505 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, according to Federal Election Commission records. The campaign plans to donate that amount to charity, according to DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan.

If convicted on both counts, Leboon faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, three years supervised release, a fine of up to $500,000 and a $200 special assessment, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Staff writer Ben Pershing and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company